Justin Webb and perilous tweeting

The presenter of Radio 4's Today programme wonders how Twitter will shape the future of marketing

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Someone emailed me the other day to complain about my misuse of the word “restaurateur.” A restaurateur is, of course, an owner of a restaurant. He or she is not a “restauranter” – the ‘n’ is tempting to insert but completely wrong. I had inserted it – wrongly – live on Today on Radio 4.

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The message I received pointed this out and within an hour of receiving it I had replied, proffering proper apologies. The complainant, perhaps disarmed by the speed and completeness of my reply, was most friendly and we exchanged several messages.

I don’t know what his view is now of me or the BBC, but the chances are that his impression has been improved by this keyboard-to-keyboard contact with the person he wanted to speak to on the subject about which he wanted to speak. Our contact was relatively old-fashioned – via email.

My fellow Today presenter Evan Davis is way ahead of that game: he tweets and replies to tweets while presenting the programme. In broadcasting this is seen as the future – not just audience feedback but audience interaction. Not as a one-off honour – “Gosh, he’s replied!” – but as a right, plain and simple. The right to a timely response not from “the complaints department” but from the person actually addressed.

There are the obvious risks of misunderstanding or slip-ups. Ask Diane Abbott or Ed Miliband. But mistakes are not the biggest issue. It’s the stuff you say on purpose that can haunt you just as badly. In the digital age a casual message – “Oh, take a hike you pedantic twerp” – can very soon become embarrassingly viral.

There are, let us be frank, people out there looking for ways to destroy broadcasters as well as politicians. And on a bad day one’s replies might not be as thoughtful as one would like. So what is to be done? The answer will come, I think, from the commercial world where companies are grappling with the same problems.

In the old days marketing used to be simple. You told people how wonderful your product was.They bought it. Some people might have passed the message on to their friends, but essentially this was a one-way communication process: company to consumer. That has utterly changed.

Modern marketing recognises that a few happy (or disgruntled) customers can affect a brand’s success hugely. And these customers are not easily dragooned. The Australian airline Qantas found this out recently when it launched a social media campaign to improve its brand image after a strike had damaged it. 

The company asked people to name their “dream luxury flight experience” and offered the opportunity to win a prize. The twitter reaction was devastating. Turned out no one gave a monkey’s about the prize but they had plenty to say about Qantas. 

But being open and transparent and modern and reactive is easier said than done. How many people should be employed to react to what the public is saying about a company? And what leeway can they be given – can they be rude if a customer is rude? Might we have to accept that there are limits to the modernity thrust upon us by social media? Among broadcasters, airlines and other companies, too? Is it possible that the smart response to the public is sometimes, still, silence?

The other day I found myself on the other side of the fence. Annoyed about something misleading a supermarket chain had said about diabetes, I wrote to the person whose email is given on the website and whose title suggests she is in charge of this area. She never replied. Nothing to say my thoughts were being digested. Nothing telling me my views were important. Nothing.

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Very old-fashioned. Or is that postmodern?